MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Two police officers are on paid leave after images of a Christmas tree in north Minneapolis’ 4th Precinct station went viral.

Mayor Jacob Frey issued a stern statement Friday after pictures appeared on social media of the tree decorated with items such as empty Takis bags, cans of malt liquor, menthol cigarette boxes and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen cups. The items are considered derogatory in nature to the black community.

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“This behavior is racist, despicable, and is well beneath the standards of any person who serves the city of Minneapolis,” Frey said. “Racism and intolerance is absolutely unacceptable, and that should especially be the case amongst our city employees.”

Black Lives Matter Twin Cities posted the picture on social media, and Minneapolis City Councilmember Phillipe Cunningham confirmed that an officer had hung some inappropriate ornaments as a prank after the tree had already been decorated.

The 4th Precinct was the site of a nearly three-week occupation three years ago, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Jamar Clark by police.

The community is searching for a way to handle its anger and frustration. Minneapolis School Board Member Kerry Jo Felder initially saw the picture on Facebook.

A close-up photo of the 4th Precinct Christmas tree (credit: CBS)

“So I went down there and took a picture of the exact same tree and posted it to let them know that it was coming down,” Felder said.

The offensive ornaments were missing, and Felder says she questioned a sergeant as she watched him take the tree down.

“I said, ‘So, where are the items that were on the tree?’ And he said he didn’t know, and that he was just told to take down the Christmas tree,” Felder said.

Mayor Frey’s initial statement said whoever was responsible would be fired immediately to send a clear message that such conduct will not be tolerated. But later Friday, he backed down a bit.

“We have a process that we are required to go through by law, but yes, that is my opinion about where the process should go,” Frey said.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said the tree incident was under investigation, and released a statement saying in part: “I am ashamed and appalled by the behavior of those who would feel comfortable to act in such a manner that goes against our core department values of Trust, Accountability and Professional Service.”

Minneapolis NAACP President Leslie Redmond says this incident is not isolated, and is proof this is a problem with the culture within the Minneapolis Police Department.

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“I was annoyed I was disheartened, but one thing I wasn’t was shocked, because the 4th Precinct time and time again have showed their disregard for the lives of people in the community and black lives overall,” Redmond said. “I believe that there are a lot of people who work in Minnesota to actually produce justice, but I also think there are many forces working against it, and we have to recognize that this is a systemic issue and it’s not just good enough to fire the individual who put this up. We need to look into how many officers walked by and was OK with it.”

A group of community activist held a press conference outside of the 4th Precinct Friday evening, where they called for the immediate termination of the responsible parties.

“If you understand the history and the attitude that the police have toward the citizens here, you’d understand that there was a meaning behind it,” said community activist Mel Reeves. “And it was racist.”

Activists want all 4th Precinct personnel to undergo cultural competency training. They are also calling for the creation of a north side community advisory group, and the hiring north side residents to work at the precinct as community liaisons.

“We don’t even feel safe walking around the police station,” said Chauntyll Allen of Black Lives Matter Twin Cities. “They were using the yellow tape as an ornament, as something to just decorate. That’s triggering. That’s triggering to every single member of the Twin Cities, to be honest with you, that has had to deal with yellow tape.”

An internal investigation into the manner is underway. WCCO-TV reached out to the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, and have not heard back.

Here is Mayor Frey’s full statement:

“This behavior is racist, despicable, and is well beneath the standards of any person who serves the city of Minneapolis. The offending party will be fired before the day is over. Shifting the culture of the police department requires swift and decisive action. Termination is necessary – both to discipline the officer and to send a clear message: Chief Arradondo and I will not tolerate conduct that departs from our values.”

Here is Chief Arradondo’s full statement:

“It was reported to me recently that a racially insensitive display that was put up in the 4th precinct lobby.  As soon as it was realized what the display was, it was removed.

“As was stated by many members of the community during the public hearing in front of the Public Safety Committee on Thursday, the culture of the Minneapolis Police Department has undergone positive change, however as this recent incident shows we still have much work ahead.  Every day I work to bridge the divide between the police department and the community, as do so many others in our department.  We will not stop our efforts of treating all those that we serve with fairness, dignity and respect.  That manner of treatment is non-negotiable. 

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“I am ashamed and appalled by the behavior of those who would feel comfortable to act in such a manner that goes against our core department values of Trust, Accountability and Professional Service.  I have initiated a full investigation and will make information public when possible in accordance with Minnesota State Statute.”

Reg Chapman